León is one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua.
León is named after León, Spain. After independence, the elites of León and Granada struggled over which city would be the capital. León was dominated by the liberals and Granada by the conservatives. The fighting ended when Managua became the capital.
After Granada, which is better preserved, León has the best colonial architecture in Nicaragua. It is a university town that stubbornly remains somewhat pro-Sandinista. During the 1979 revolution, the Sandinistas took over León in violent street by street fighting. Somoza then had the city bombed, an unforgivable move considering he was bombing his own people. The National Guard took León back over, again in street by street fighting, but this time less intense since the Sandinistas melted away. Finally, the Sandinistas took León back over and held it until the Somoza government fell. You can still see bullet marks on some buildings. Also, there is a shell of a church on the road out of town that was destroyed during the bombing. Across the street from this church is the Museo de las Tradiciones (Museum of the Traditions), which prominently displays a statute of a Sandinista guerrilla holding a handmade bomb. Some sarcastically call it the Museo de las Traiciones (Museum of the Treasons) as a reference to how the Sandinista rank and file has been cheated by Daniel Ortega and the rest of the Sandinista elite.
León used to be the hub of cotton growing but that has declined. The economy is relatively depressed. Tourists are not a large, visible presence in León, though it is popular amongst more seasoned travellers. León still is a university town, filled with students. Backpackers, Volunteers and other extranjeros usually melt with local students.
León has more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua. If you are still on the church tour, there are thirteen, I think, you can check out in town.
Nearest commercial airport is in Managua. Managua is roughly an hour and a half drive from León.
Just about anyone in Managua can tell you how. The Carretera Vieja to León (old road to León) is in the best shape it has been, ever. It is well paved and signed. (The Carretera Nueva is in bad shape I hear). It's about 90 kilometers from Managua to León, about a 90 minute trip depending on how fast you drive. Stop for quesillo and tiste in Nagarote or La Paz Centro, the two towns the Carretera Vieja goes through on the way. You will find the turnoff to the Carretera Nueva a León at KM 6 1/2 on the Carretera Sur.
If you are coming from the north (Esteli) on the carretera norte, take the turn north of Matagalpa, at San Isidro I think, and save yourself the trouble of going through Managua.
From Managua take the vans leaving from Mercado Israel Lewites or the microbuses (camionetas) leaving from UCA (Universidad Centro Americana). The vans from Mercado Israel Lewites are fiteen-passenger vans that are fairly crowded, but not excessively uncomfortable, particularly when one sits next to a window. Buses run regularly, leaving from the Mercado every 15-20 minutes. The bus should cost C$ 25. If you take the bus, make sure to get an expreso - otherwise the bus makes stops to pick up passengers on the side of the road along the way.
Theres one bus from Esteli, if you miss it, you've got to change in San Isidro on the Panamerican Hwy.
The bus terminal is about 2 km northeast of the center, take on of the trucks waiting in front of the terminal - which serve as local buses (3 cord) - to the center, or take a taxi for about C$10.
The city is very walkable if you can stand the heat. You do not really need a car once there, unlike Managua. The locals get around by bicycle and walking, and if you need to get across town you can take a taxi. However, to go to the places outside the city, such as the beach, a car is convenient.
Ruletos (trucks) serve as local buses (C$ 3 per ride). Taxis are C$ 10 per person anywhere in the city.
The Cathedral of León is the biggest in Central America. The story goes that the construction plans sent back to Spain for approval showed smaller dimensions, because they were afraid the Church wouldn't approve such a large cathedral. It is also the final resting place of Ruben Dario. You can pay a small fee to climb the stairs up to the roof, where you can get a nice view of all of León's churches and the surrounding volcanoes. On the roof you can see close up the giant sculptures holding up the cathedral bells, just don't ring them.
There are murals all over the city.
Quetzaltrekkers Nicaragua offers non-profit volcano Treks. They are located just around the corner from ViaVia and Big Foot. Big Foot Hostel offer excellent value Volcano Boarding trips with an English speaking guide. Rumor has it that they will be commencing climbing Nicaraguas Tallest volcano, San Christobal.
Take advantage of the beaches of Poneloya and Penitas nearby. Penitas is less of a town than Poneloya with less activities. Be careful once there though, not of the people who are just as friendly as in León, but of the surf. The waves are large and quite fun, but watch out for the undertow. The surf claims a few victims every year, including the young and fit. There are accommodations from hotel Lacayo, old and historic, all wood structure, to Hotel Poneloya, a crash pad w/ a/c across the street that has uncomfortable beds and no windows for about $20 dollars a night (they built some new rooms which I did not look at), to the nice beachfront Hotel Suyapa Beach which is where you should stay if you have the money (still less than $60). Besides hanging out at the beach, there's a billiard hall popular with locals at the end of the paved road in Poneloya (though at night it gets a little rowdy as locals get drunk on Lijon - cheap sugar cane liquor), restaurants, and lots of Flor de Caña rum. There is also a Catholic Church in Poneloya in case you need to make atonement for what Flor made you do. Buses depart from the road to Poneloya on the outskirts of town (by Subtiava), they are quite affordable. Splurging on a taxi is also an option. The beaches are less than 20 kilometers away.
Catch a baseball game if you are there during the season. The Leónes won the championship in 2004 and are perpetual contenders. For fifty cordobas you can sit right behind home plate, or pay less for 3rd base side where the lively crowd sits with the unofficial band. Order some vigoron, get a Victoria and enjoy. If Chinandega is visiting, it can get quite rowdy and tickets sell out. The stadium is in the northern part of the city.
Visit the Museo Ruben Dario. Pick up some of his poetry (Azul is a good beginning). There is an art museum that has a good collection, including contemporary art. It occupies two houses. The main part on a southeast corner of the street that runs from Parque Ruben Dario to the Cathedral (Avenida Central).
For the best view over the city and the volcanoes, go to "el fortin", an old Somoza stronghold southwest of León, best reached from Subtiava. It's a 20 minute walk, ask locals for directions.
Spanish at one of the schools.
You also can get excellent classes with private teachers, which actually is much cheaper.
There are free-of-charge volunteer opportunities with Quetzaltrekkers an organisation raising money for street kids by offering hikes to volcanoes around León. You can volunteer as a hiking guide for a minimum of three months.
Las Tias - the supported organization - also takes volunteers, taking care of the streetkids, with a two months minimum.
Ask around at the cafe run by "Edad de Oro", whether this organisation got some work for you - they're pretty cool too.
Queso quemado (hard, salty, white cheese that goes great with tortillas or bean soup).
Great food at the local market, behind the main cathedral. Large food court with all sorts of great beans and eggs and rice and fried cheese and cheese-stuffed platanos and thick tortillas. Great for breakfast, you can fill up for a dollar or two. You can also buy fresh-made juices, and gaze in awe at the giant blocks of fried cheese.
Comedor Lucia, next to the Big Foot Hostel offers great food for 1-2 dollar. They are closed at night. A branch called comedor Lisetta is on Avenida Ruben Dario, open in the evening.
On the boulevard out of town toward Chinandega, across from the main police station, there's a green house with a porch. This 'Pelo de chancho', where you get the best Mondongo soup in León, but you have to get there early for lunch or they might run out.
Cocin Arte is a great vegetarian restaurant. Take about 4 dollar for a meal and a drink. The service tends to be slow but the food is well-worth the wait. They also sell organic chocolates and coffee.
Los Pescaditos, located in Subtiava, is worth the cab ride (less than 10 minutes from Cathedral). You should check out the Subtiava Church on the way back to walk off your meal.
Montserrat (or something similar) is on the bypass near the Managua intersection. They serve a good fillet mignon or churrasco for under $10 US. The restaurant serves as a night club at night. It is open on the sides and large.
Payitas, El Sesteo during the day.
Don Senor's has a restaurant downstairs to eat, drink and watch tv. Upstairs is a club that charges a 30 cordoba cover.
Dilectus is fancier and larger then the other discos. Its on the edge of town and requires a taxi to get there and back. The cover is about c$50.
Salon Estrella is about 20 cordobas to get in, has slot machines in front, a small dance floor in the back, loud music and usually gets pretty full.
La Calabiza at night.
ViaVia has live music every Friday (follow the crowed when it closes at 11 pm - it's still a hostel, with tired travellers...).
El Divino Castigo (3 blocks north of parque central) got live music every Tuesday. La Esquina del Movimiento (one block east of the above) got Spanish alternative movies almost every Thursday, and often live music on Saturdays.
Prices change quite quickly with the budget hostels or hotels, so bear that in mind when planning your stay. If they are different that we have noted, please update them.
Los Balcones, on the corner down the street from the Supermercado Colonia, is a nice hotel that is a splurge only by Nicaraguan standards. It has A/C, real mattresses, nice views, hot water, and great service. It cost about $US 50 per night. The staff and owner all speak English well. The owner is very friendly, and a great guide.
León is - by Central American standards - a very safe and comfortable town. In the city center, it is safe to walk home even at 3 AM. There are, however, some things to keep in mind: